Trump Capitol insurrection: The history behind the violence

Turning this ugly page in American history will not be easy. Can Biden overcome it?

A supporter of US President Donald Trump waves Trump and Confederate flags after making his way to the second floor of the US Capitol during the insurrection on January 6. (photo credit: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS)
A supporter of US President Donald Trump waves Trump and Confederate flags after making his way to the second floor of the US Capitol during the insurrection on January 6.
(photo credit: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS)
In the aftermath of the ugly, deadly Trump-incited mob assault on the US Capitol while it hosted a joint session of Congress to tally the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election – with Vice President Mike Pence and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris both on site – President-Elect Joe Biden, Democrats, and some of America’s allies emphatically condemned Trump and the insurrection.
Most Republicans sought to distance both Trump and themselves from the violence, even as the outgoing president and many of his followers fanned its flames before the conflagration enveloped Washington on January 6.  
In seeking to understand this self-inflicted national tragedy, we can trace the roots of this day of infamy to four main historical strains.
The first is from the Civil War and Reconstruction era.  White ethnonationalist elites whipped up most white Southerners (but far from all) to enthusiastically embrace a white supremacist nationalist separatist ideology in the years leading up the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. Refusing to accept the results, they not only tried to illegally secede from the Union – losers of an election seceding ipso facto destroying democracy – but even seized and attacked federal government installations throughout their South.  These traitors and rebels tried to form their own “national” “government” for their fascist “Confederacy,” but when they were soundly defeated after over four years of bloody war, the North imposed a new order on the South and the whole country, enshrining in the Constitution equal rights – including full political rights – for all male citizens, a group redefined to include those newly freed from slavery, and instilled means for the federal government to enforce these rights in that same Constitution.
White supremacist terrorist insurgents – especially the Ku Klux Klan – affiliated with the Democratic Party engaged in an orgy of bloodletting throughout the later 1860s and 1870s, killing thousands of freedmen and their white allies even through an intensified US military occupation. Northern political will waned and allowed increasingly organized white supremacist terrorist forces to march on Southern towns and state capitals, violently overthrowing what had been remarkable, pioneering biracial governments throughout the South.  The hopes of preserving and restoring biracial government were dashed when, in the disputed presidential election of 1876, Southern states had largely succeeded in disenfranchising black voters through legal machinations and violence, three Southern states sending two sets of competing electors.  
In the end, the Democrats agreed to allow the Republican electors to count and to thus allow Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to ascend to the presidency in return for him withdrawing the final US troops enforcing racial equality and a biracial government, thus ending Reconstruction.  
The Jim Crow era would ensue, not being legally dismantled until 1964-1965, when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson ushered in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.  The turn of the Democratic Party away from racism and to racial justice had begun, and was complemented greatly by Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of courting racist Southern whites into the Republican Party, switching the two parties on race and forming the second strain.
The Reagan Revolution of the 1980s furthered this but also transformed the Republican Party into one that was anti-government to a sometimes nihilist degree, the third strain.  Those Nixon-Reagan strains were greatly intensified by the arrival of a new player in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich, who introduced the fourth of our historical strains: extreme partisanship.  As Speaker of the House for four years starting in 1995, Gingrich transformed American politics on its right into extreme, bad-faith, partisan warfare, often liking to quote Mao on politics (“war without blood”).  
He was aptly labeled by George Packer as the Robespierre of his own so-called Gingrich Revolution that delivered Congress to Republicans in 1995 with far more extreme members recruited and groomed by Gingrich.  That extremism has dominated congressional Republicans ever since, taken to new levels with the advents of the Tea Party and then Trump. Gingrich characterized his political opponents as enemies in a Manichean fight for civilization, not as fellow citizens in political debate, and was also a pioneer in ratcheting up Islamophobia and Republican attempts to turn Israel into an American political football, teeing both issues for Trump to take to even further extremes.  
It is no surprise, then, that Gingrich was one of the earliest Republican heavyweights to back Trump and has since been one of his most loyal and disgusting apologists and bandwagoners.  
Even now, Gingrich – fully supporting Trump’s election “fraud” scam that in large part incited the Capitol attack – has condemned the violence while insanely completely separating Trump and Trumpism from it; his latest missive, “Stop All the Violence,” is civilizational-clash shameless bothsidesism attacking Antifa and “black lives matter” protests while avoiding discussion of Trump’s incitement.  Just as Gingrich lived his political life by inciting division and hate, so has Trump, allied foremost with extremist racist fundamentalist Christians rife with antisemitism, their neo-Nazi symbols and “Confederate” flags – mostly kept hidden before Trump’s rise – on full display both at Charlottesville and the insurrection.  
That vile “Confederate” battle flag, adopted by the Ku Klux Klan and the symbol of American fascist white supremacy and traitorous insurrection, was seen flying inside the sacred grounds of the US Capitol during Trump’s insurrection, something its ancestral rebels never achieved during the Civil War; yes, there is no doubt that many of those taking part in assaulting the Capitol were aware of the history of the successful white supremacist terrorist insurrections of Reconstruction and sought very much to recreate their murderous outcomes. As more and more details are coming out days later, it is only now clear many wanted to kill Speaker Pelosi, Vice President Pence, and many others, intentions only narrowly averted by minutes and the bravery of small groups of police who did not melt away.  
The previous strains of Nixonian racism, Reaganite hatred of government, and Gingrichian extreme partisanship combined to take us to Trump himself, who with his democratic fascism has for years ripped open the social and political fabric of America in ways civil war does, with perhaps the first of more battles fought last week on the steps of the US Capitol.  Therein Trump – by joining violent insurrection inspired by the “Confederacy” with the other strains – united all four of our historical strains, that sad, pathetic insurrection the natural outcome.
Can Biden overcome history?
Turning this ugly page in American history will not be easy.  As the ancient Roman poet Lucan noted of his own country’s devastating civil wars, “No–foreign swords could never pierce so deeply./ The deadliest wounds are dealt by citizen hands.”
But with the White House mercifully soon to be filled by President Biden, Americans will have a leader again that tries not like Trump to bring out the worst in people, but one that will push all Americans to embrace the better angels of their nature, not operating on hate and fear or even naïve utopia, but on legitimate hope tempered by the harshness of the dark era from which Americans must work to transcend, asking them to take hard but necessary steps forward if they hope to turn away from increasing hate, violence, and domestic terrorism.
Biden truly is a man for this moment, with an empathy and ability to emotionally connect with all kinds of Americans that outshone all his Democratic rivals and certainly the madman he ran against in the general election. His picks to fill out the Biden Administration are not extremist racists, antisemites, or plutocrats from the far-right or socialist far-left, but experienced government hands who are clear they are there not to serve an exclusivist ethnonationalist agenda, but to serve all Americans regardless of ideology, race, or origin.
Biden has a deep understanding of the history mentioned above, tying Trump’s insurrection directly to Reconstruction in his speech on January 7:
The reason for the Justice Department’s forming in the first place was back in 1870. We didn’t have a Justice Department before that cabinet. It was formed in 1870 to enforce the civil rights amendment that grew out of the Civil War – the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. To stand up to the Klan, to stand up to racism. To take on domestic terrorism. This original spirit must again guide and animate its work.  So as we stand here today, we do so in the wake of yesterday’s events. Events that could not more have vividly demonstrated some of the most important work we have to do in this nation. Committing ourselves to the rule of law in this nation, invigorating our domestic and democratic institutions. Carrying out equal justice under the law in America.
At the height of the Cold War, there was reason to fear for America after President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, but Lyndon Johnson rose from that tragedy to lead America to its most ambitious era of domestic reform since Reconstruction and the New Deal.  His massive record of legislative achievement in the wake of national tragedy is unprecedented in the modern era, but is overshadowed by his handling of the Vietnam War, turning that into another national tragedy even as he had led America out of an earlier one.
Unlike any president since Johnson, Biden is poised to be a massive legislator-in-chief, but one who will not lead America into a fruitless, tragic Vietnam-like war that will derail his domestic agenda. Like the Kennedy assassination for Johnson, the Trump insurrection will empower Biden to achieve more than was possible without it, and no candidate in this election cycle had more of a record of or campaigned more on bipartisanship and unity than Biden, no candidate better able to realize such hopes.
In some ways, what America had for the last four years in Trump was the second president of the “Confederacy.” As Biden rescued the US from right-wing delusional chauvinistic leadership playing on fear and division in no small part supported by the descendants of freed slaves, America will have an American president once again.  And especially with Vice President Harris poised to be his successor, the promise of the peak of Reconstruction looks to be realized more than ever before, the “Confederate” white supremacist insurrection reincarnated under Trump truly cast into the dustbin of history.■
The writer is an American freelance writer, analyst and consultant who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland; hails from the New York City area and has spent the last two decades studying, writing about or working in policy, politics, international development and humanitarian aid. He lived in the Middle East from 2014 to 2019. You can follow him on Twitter (@bfry1981) and see much of his work on his news website,